Taika Waititi is easily distracted by stray cats.
It’s a note I make twice during our 20-minute Zoom interview. The first time his attention wanes to the feline intruder on my screen’s background it completely derails our interview. We’d been talking about his new workplace comedy Our Flag Means Death, landing on HBO Max March 3rd. The show sees him reuniting with What We Do In The Shadows mate Rhys Darby as the pair plays two of history’s most notorious swashbucklers. (Okay fine, one notorious swashbuckler for Waititi, one high-seas cosplaying aristocrat practically no one’s heard of for Darby.)
Both men – who have been friends for a decade or so – have jumped on a late-in-the-day call to preview a series that feels like if Pirates of the Caribbean met The Office, but they’re thrown off course by house pets. Waititi patiently waits as Darby shows me his own precious ball of fluff – who’s so well-groomed I begin to question my own cat parenting skills – but he draws the line when we begin discussing the concept of “cat strollers” and whether Darby should purchase one.
We’ve got a job to do, after all, and it involves promoting this show. A show that, if all goes well, might single-handedly revive the pirate industry – which is what creator David Jenkins likely intended all along. So, we get back to it, diving into the comedy’s wild premise, why the Kiwi sense of humor is superior, and which man’s pirate costume was more uncomfortable … all before another clawed intruder pops up to commandeer the conversation and toy with Waititi’s sense of reality.
“Jeez, there’s two of them,” he will eventually conclude. “It’s like the Matrix.”
After I spend too much time assuring them both that I do not, in fact, have a horde of cats hidden in my house, we correct course again. Free of future furred rogues, Darby and Waititi explain why they signed onto a pirate show in 2022 and whether a What We Do In The Shadow’s spinoff for Darby’s wolf pack leader will ever happen.
I love a good workplace comedy, but why set one on the high seas?
Taikia Waititi: Well I for one have never seen the… I’m probably making up a word, here, “mundanity”? “Mundane-ness”? You know what, it’s 2022, you can do what you want. No one’s going to police you nowadays. Mundanity. Mundaneness – ness – ness of being a pirate. What happens in the downtime in between the swashbuckling, when you’re washbuckling, and you’re bosh… smuckling? All those kinds of words.
Rhys Darby: You’ve done your swashing now you’re just buckling!
TW: Now you’re buckling the things you’ve swashed! And what happens when you’re talking about the things you’ve swash-buckled and you’re sitting around, scrubbing the deck. On boat life, everything has to be cleaned every day and you’ve got to keep retying these knots and there’s got to be some order.
RD: It’s tiresome.
TW: It’s just not just hanging out, smoking cigars and drinking rum. That was like a very small part of it. There’s not much rum drinking at all actually — they’re all rationed.
RD: It’s 20 minutes on a Friday.
TW: So, is there comedy to be mined within that? Showing that part of that life?
Because this is a comedy, the show could’ve just created a character. It didn’t necessarily have to be based on real-life historical figures, and yet we’ve got Blackbeard and this guy Stede Bonnet – both recognized pirates. Why were these two so interesting?
RD: That was David’s [Jenkins] genius idea. This guy shouldn’t have been a pirate, yet he was. And he’s on the fringe of these well-known pirates. Not many people know of him.
TW: Yeah, the most unlikely of pirates. It’s like why people love stories about a loser who suddenly becomes a hero at the end. No one wants to see a show about just the best pirate in the world, who’s always successful. It’s so boring. We want to see [someone] learning the ropes and figuring it out as he’s going along.
It’s incredible to see Rhys as this character. He broke the three cardinal rules of becoming a pirate. He built his own boat — he was meant to steal one. He hired a crew and paid them a weekly wage — the incentive is to steal stuff, that’s what made pirates be pirates. And he treated them really nicely. He wanted to be the gentleman pirate. You’re supposed to strike fear into the hearts of your enemy — not make them look forward to seeing you.
He’s made a pirate ship a healthy work environment, which feels like something that’s very hard to do.
RD: Totally, and the most amazing thing is, this really happened. This guy had everything, he was a wealthy landowner and he just suddenly snapped at the age of 32, I think it was — he just left his wife and kids, poured a lot of money into a ship, and built a library in his ship, took all his books with him. He was a dreamer and a risk-taker and just decided, “I’m going to get a second chance at life. To hell with it, to hell with this bliss that I’m living in which I’m so bored.” The people that do that kind of thing, it’s courageous because not many people do it, they think it’s absolute stupidity. And he’s the worst scenario of that because he’s going to go pirating. You’re going to die.
TW: The modern-day equivalent is when you hear about lawyers giving their jobs and becoming screenwriters.
RD: I’ve done lawyering, let’s go and do something that’s going to make me no money.
TW: I don’t want to discourage people from becoming screenwriters at any age, but it’s not going to happen for everyone. There are more rock and roll things you can do. Start a cool band with your mate. I’d rather you did that than join the sad, sad world of screenwriters.
[At this point in the conversation, we dive into Blake Snyder’s Save The Cat: The Last Book on Screenwriting, which has become an oft-recommended intro into screenwriting for aspiring creatives. Waititi has never read it. Darby, who can’t recall the book’s title, suggests it’s called “How To Skin A Cat.” Other made-up book names include “The Most Famous Cat In The Room” and “Screenwriting: Who’s A Cat Now.”]
RD: The less you know the better, Taika and I are proof of that. The less you know, the less you look into things, the better because then you’re totally original you’re coming from your own heart and your own soul and no one can fight with that. No one can argue with that.
TW: You’re absolutely right Rhys. I think the message for every person should be living their lives. It’s very difficult to be alive in this day and age and be true to yourself and actually be honest about what you want. A lot of us, we wake up one day, we go, “Is this my fucking life? Where did I go wrong? Or where did I go right?”
RD: In his case, ‘How did I go so right?’
You’re getting paid to dress up as pirates. You went right somewhere. But serious question, whose costume was the most uncomfortable?
RD: I can concur, it was uncomfortable. Looked good though.
TW: The costume and the hair and makeup and the beard and everything are exactly molded off how I feel on the inside. Constantly boiling hot, uncomfortable, and angry.
The longer you’re in this business, is it more difficult to find projects like this that excite you? Things that feel original and fresh?
RD: Taika’s doing that. He’s a refreshing person for Hollywood, for entertainment in general because he puts his own spin on everything and that’s why he’s who he is.
TW: I think Rhys is who he is. Rhys has certainly got his unique style. We saw a bunch of people read for this role who, any other casting agent or director would say were super obvious choices. They were good, but not different — not like they made you pay attention and go, “I want to see what happens to this motherfucker on the fucking high seas.” I think there’s a unique thing that we have in New Zealand. It still feels like we’re outsiders.
RD: It still feels like we’re still doing a style that other people aren’t doing.
TW: It’s how we speak and improvise how we would normally do it and then we’ve got our own particularly unique rhythm. I didn’t have to change my accent in [this] show, neither did Rhys. We love to do comedy without having to put on an accent — which would’ve ruined my performance, even a Bristolian accent which was where Blackbeard was from. There’s a better opportunity [now] to be ourselves.
Speaking of original, the What We Do In The Shadows world is expanding and yet, no werewolves spinoffs have happened. What gives?
TW: I know! I really do. I keep saying it and I decided, “You’re not going to say it anymore.” For years I kept promising that Jemaine [Clement] and I were going to work on We Are Wolves for Rhys. I’ve done so many interviews where I’ve said, “Yeah we’re doing it.”
RD: [jokingly] When? When?!
TW: We haven’t written it, but we still want to do it. That’d be the only spinoff, the only thing to do with What We Do In The Shadows that I would do again.